The Andrew MacLean I knew was a big man — in personality and in size. He was ruddy-cheeked and white haired with dark sashes for eyebrows which punctuated his stories, and laughed with his jokes. He made a friend of me when I was about eight by telling me I was gamine like the French actress Leslie Caron who danced opposite Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. He was prone to off-the-cuff witticisms, referring to the iron railing by the front door of his Forest Hill home as “over-wrought iron”, and to salty sea shanties about what to do with drunken sailors. He — this old warrior and national publisher, wealthy and successful son of Old Toronto money — wasn’t one for putting on airs or playing down to kids.
Then something happened in Andrew’s life. He moved from the house with the wrought-iron railing to a much smaller place beside the Beltline which was still running trains in those days. As my parents explained, he’d asked his wife for a divorce. It may have been the mid-fifties, but by then I knew a thing or two about divorce, mainly because it was the reason I wasn’t christened until the age of four — an event seared into my soul when the minister picked me up in front of the entire congregation. I had two godmothers; one of whom was Christian Scientist and the other a divorcée. It was the second who caused the problem. Mother had had to shop around Toronto for an Anglican church willing to accept a divorced woman as someone’s godmother, and it took long enough for my younger sister to appear. Of course, I treasured Auntie Peggy, and admired my mother for holding out; but the real take-away was the Church’s obdurate condemnation of divorce, and the vilification of anyone who dared.
Divorce, like sex, was not a subject for polite conversation in 1950s Toronto. It was something shameful you weren’t supposed to mention, although everyone did, of course. “A divorcée,” they whispered, pointing. Divorce was a rare occurrence and it cost a lot, and not just in legal fees. First, someone had to sue someone else in court, then the judge would find fault and grant the divorce; but it didn’t become official until ratified by the Canadian Senate. This pretty well nixed any chance of getting divorced quietly, or quickly. Moreover, the social consequences were unavoidable and brutal.
Until the day it suddenly wasn’t — somewhere around 1968 — divorce was considered an anathema by everyone. Churches, governments, institutions, and communities everywhere. To describe the general attitude to marriage breakdown as denial would be accurate but light years off adequate. Marital disharmony was nobody’s business, and you were expected to tough it out — even when it permanently ruined lives. For those who went ahead anyway, there followed destroyed reputations and sidelined careers. In many fields it was tantamount to professional suicide. Indeed, the news reports of the recent death of Happy Rockefeller, widow of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, all emphasized the scandal that was unleashed when the two divorced their respective spouses and married each other in 1963. The extra-marital affair, and out-of-state divorce scuttled Rockefeller’s presidential hopes, though he did go on to become Gerald Ford’s Vice-President.
So try to imagine Toronto a decade earlier, deep in the fifties. People wouldn’t dare consider living together before marriage. A man and a woman couldn’t even rent a hotel room unless they were ‘legal’. And should they – God forbid — have children, the kids would be deemed illegitimate by the state and everyone else. No wonder, then, that staid Toronto society was up in arms over Andrew’s insistence on dissolving his marriage. It was seen as a betrayal, and a kind of outing. You were not meant to divorce your wife and mess up seating plans and inheritance lines. You were supposed to have your cake on the side, if you felt so inclined, but to otherwise keep up appearances. For the sin of admitting his marriage was over — and being willing to give up almost all his money in exchange for a new life — Andrew MacLean was ostracized.
And I owe him for the front row seat on the morality play entitled ‘This is What Happens to People Who Ignore Convention’. Ostracism was heavy stuff, something that the ancient Greeks did when it was decided an individual was too toxic to have around. He’d be shown the city gates and told not to come back for five or ten years. In Andrew’s case, the exile wasn’t geographic or particularly public, but the effect was similar, and perpetual. There was no ceremony; banishment came when backs were turned, doors were slammed, phones calls refused and letters returned. And was followed by cancelled memberships and terminated friendships. It was the radio-age version of social-media shaming.
What filtered down to me at kid-level was the insinuation that Andrew had been kicked off the team for breaking ranks. Even worse, he was exiled by his own family. Everyone took sides, and his side wouldn’t have filled a rowboat. When his second wife came on the scene there were precious few places they could go together. Ours was one of a few homes where they were welcome.
I read Betrayed with this background in mind, remembering the animosity directed at Andrew MacLean sixty years ago when Mad Men was for real. As someone who actually knew him, it was hard not to read Richard Mayne’s depiction as more of the same.
But first, there is much to admire in Mayne’s book. Most impressive is his strategy of broadening the scope of his research, reaching below the brass into the bureaucracy and support staff levels to tell a more complex political and social history. Similarly, his narrative approach — which was to document events outside official meetings and scripted commentary — yields a story of intrigue and ambition amid chasms of miscommunication. This view is highly instructive given the current controversy about the culture of the Canadian military. Though the concerns today are about sexism, harassment and the treatment of women which is more serious in nature (at least in the eyes of the criminal code), Mayne’s description of the culture of careerism among full-time officers, and its role in Rear-Admiral Percy Walker Nelles’ downfall, is an insight into the behaviour of the upper echelons in the all-male military of the time. Mayne’s narrative plays on the dichotomy between the ideals of loyalty and discipline and an institutional culture hard-wired to ambition and self-interest.
“Chronic attempts to gain seniority over peers caused much bitterness within the RCN’s officers corps, and that collective mentality was responsible for one of the most intense and hate-filled rivalries in Canadian naval history — that between (Rear Admirals) G. C. Jones, and Leonard Murray. By the late 1930s, it was obvious that Jones and Murray were jockeying for position and in an unofficial leadership race to be crowned as Nelles’ eventual successor. While both men were aggressive career manipulators, Jones was the more efficient and ruthless.” 1
Second, I’m no position to critique Mayne’s rendition of naval history or to contend the description of Andrew MacLean’s reputation among the navy brass as reflected in the archives. And I don’t doubt that Mayne encountered negative opinion about MacLean in interviews. Betrayed troubles me primarily because of the frequent assertions about character and motive which are unavoidably subjective; the kind of comment journalists and non-fiction writers generally prefer to see in quotes. And that’s because it is usually preferable to have witnesses or colleagues making such judgements, people with direct and deeper knowledge of the individual than you are likely to have. (There exceptions, of course, such as biographies where the level of focused research will give a writer the confidence to passed judgements.) While it is part of a writer’s role to sum up various views, to weigh and measure them in drawing conclusions, there’s also an obligation to canvass the range of views and contrary opinions to begin with. And what happens when you are writing about individuals who generate the same opinion, negative or positive? Or who are not researchable as often happens with bit players in the historical events because there is no primary source material about them, and no one left to interview?
The problem, I find, is complicated by Mayne’s colourful and active language which at times gets the better of him: “Fresh from decapitating the naval Staff, the minister’s blade was razor sharp, and his verbal jab cut deep into MacLean’s ego” he writes referring to a note written MacLean by the minister defending the derogatory comments he’d made about him in the House. And a few lines later, “MacLean’s greatest enemy was his own ego. Personal naval ambitions and attempts to avenge his injured pride were too closely linked to the larger crusade to end the permanent force’s so-called discrimination against the reserves.”
Third, my assessment of Betrayed inevitably comes from my perspective as a writer and editor. And on that score, comments like these — which are not reserved for MacLean — leave me musing about the editorial advice Mayne may or may not have received before publication. In a literary sense his book is a high-wire act that leaves zero wiggle-room in evaluations of some people, most especially MacLean. References are not much help, as they mostly list sources, offering no quotes or précis of the information on which the views in the text are based. Thus there are few glimpses beneath the surface of Mayne’s judgements, which is to say, he writes with little visible support — corroborating opinion, or alternative interpretations of the man and his actions. In academic publishing this is perfectly acceptable, as it can be taken for granted in that milieu that the book has been vetted, and the references are reliable. It becomes problematic when the text is written in a more popular and direct vein that takes the risk of ‘getting inside someone’s head’ without hedging any bets. In the world I write in, it really isn’t enough to state that “most people” thought someone was a crank, and expect readers to fall in with the opinion — not when he was the one who tripped off the events that brought down the Admiral.
In short, the portrayal feels one-sided and prejudged, and readers are given just two options: take Mayne’s word for these judgements, or replicate his research. Which bring us to an impasse, a place where academic historians and independent scholars have been before — working in the same field of research with serious differences about how to write the stuff up.
A profile rendered in broad strokes will always be hard to get right. It’s the kind of image that tends to caricature, and to leaving lasting impressions, sometimes unwarranted. The big risk is not just in making a mistake; it’s in having to live with it. Think of it this way — today’s troublemakers have a way of ending up tomorrow’s peacemakers, which is why writers pray to have a editor around to remind them to double checking everything, to set their default response to ‘sceptical’, and to plot alternative descents when climbing out on a limb. The best defence is always research.
Andrew MacLean is described in the first two sentences of Betrayed as quixotic and troublesome. He is also identified as a key player in the downfall of Vice-Admiral Nelles. As the story unfolds we see he was a thorn-in-the-side of higher-ups from the beginning of the war, never hesitating to write letters and memos to them about naval problems and possible solutions. He became increasingly convinced Ottawa was not listening (as did others), and simply not attending to some very critical issues. Not long after he retired in 1942 he went public, blowing the whistle on Naval Headquarters as well as the Department of National Defence, instigating a political crisis that, amazingly, never became public. Mayne doesn’t use the term whistle-blower, or suggest that MacLean was putting himself on the line deliberately knowing his position and influence made it easier for him than others. Instead he casts MacLean as a loose cannon blundering into history like Forrest Gump offering no explanation for his active dissent beyond class entitlement and personal ambition. A rebel without cause.
I have known people with money, education and pedigrees who behave in the way Mayne describes; people who are willing to play high-stakes games without caring about the outcome or the impact on others. Such behaviour would have been all the more reprehensible in the middle of a war. But there are those who’d tell you MacLean was not, as Mayne asserts, driven by egotism, ambition or pride when he talked about the caliber of weaponry and search technologies available to the men fighting German U-boats in the North Atlantic, and that his concern for their lives was genuine. They would point out, too, that MacLean wasn’t alone in raising concerns about internal problems undermining the navy’s effort to modernize, disaffection between the reserve and regulars being a major one. Mayne concedes that a number of MacLean’s recommendations were actually implemented, notably reserve representation on the Naval Board which received such pushback from Naval Staff that the minister’s executive assistant was prompted to comment to his boss, “I begin to see what Andy MacLean meant.”
MacLean was also right about the problems with equipment updating, which was addressed in the aftermath of not only his critiques, but also recommendations in several internal reports. In the early war years Canada’s boys were being sent to sea with out-dated equipment, and as a result some of them weren’t coming home. So while the navy brass and their political counterparts moved to avoid the crisis, and worked to keep the public in the dark about the true situation, they also took care that none of the changes could ever be attributed to MacLean’s interventions.
Balance and Fairness
It’s easy to see why politicians, bureaucrats and high command all wanted to be rid of MacLean. He spoke his mind and deplored (again, he was not alone) the failure of those in charge and in leadership positions to engage with legitimate concerns, and to communicate.
But was such activism disloyal? Picking up on the hints in Betrayed that the reservists who agitated for change were disloyal, Michael Hennessy responds in his review of the book. “What could be described as disloyalty could also be portrayed as forthrightness unbeholden to rank or careerism. The reserves bore the operational brunt of the campaign. That in their frustration and eagerness they could grow impatient with the rational bureaucratic staff processes of Ottawa, and agitate for reform with powerful friends should be seen as normal in a mass democracy that relies on reservists to fill the military’s ranks in times of war. Was their subterfuge disloyal? Did they owe loyalty to their men, their minister or their nation? Such questions strike at the heart of civil-military relations.”
This is the central conundrum of the story, never explored by Mayne and so left hanging. His sections on MacLean are problematic in the same way, because of what is left out more than for what’s said. Compared to other key figures, biographic detail on Maclean are slim pickings. It seems very likely that Mayne ran into strong opinions about MacLean both in the interviews logged some years ago by naval historians Hal Lawrence and Tony German, and in his own conversations with veterans. Yet the “family members of veterans” Mayne also spoke with did not include any of Andrew MacLean’s family, or (apparently) anyone else who knew him well. Nor did he consult MacLean’s private papers.
In his Acknowledgments, Mayne credits three veterans with “helping shape my understanding of life in wartime reserves.” All three veterans knew Andrew MacLean. Without doubt, they’d have had strong opinions about him and the divorce. My guess is they’d have been horrified at the sight of his financial near-ruin in the name of love and his removal from the family business, though not necessarily out of compassion. From what I know of Toronto society, those who breached the faith were neither forgotten nor forgiven. They wereforever seen as losers and treated as class traitors.
All three are familiar names to me. One man I sat next to at my parents’ fifty-fifth anniversary celebration a few months before my father died in 1995. Another was a cousin of my sister’s godmother and namesake. I’d reason to contact John Band in 2000 when I was doing photo research for a book on Emily Carr. It had been 25 years since I’d last seen him, and once he established who was calling, he came out with that phrase — “Rebel without a cause”. This is what he barked as a greeting before launching into a monologue about how elegant and honourable my mother was (read — how clearly wanting in those departments I was). I had not expected he’d softened, so I steeled myself for the onslaught and then told him what I was seeking. Total gentleman that he was, he provide the information.
The events that Band was referring to surrounded the annual meetings of the membership of the Art Gallery of Ontario over several years in the mid 1970s when a coalition of artists and community activists (including myself) floated slates of candidates hoping to elect an artist or two to the board. The move was not welcomed by the Gallery and its patrons who didn’t reckon people like architect Raymond Moriyama, filmmaker and artist Joyce Wieland, or former city alderman Colin Vaughan belonged on their board. (Pinkerton’s guards were called in, as I recall.)
Bumping into John Band in Richard Mayne’s acknowledgment section was a reminder of that conversation. Band had been a Trustee of the AGO Foundation, the entity that had been a target of our accountant’s probing questions at public meetings about who actually owned the art in the Gallery’s collection. (It turned out it is the Foundation which is a private corporation, not the Gallery which is a non-profit public institution.) So what, I naturally wondered, would John Band have had to say about Andrew MacLean all those years later? Very likely the same thing he said to me, as I too was behaving like a class traitor. In my own defence, I’d have to agree I’m a rebel and class traitor. But I’d absolutely refute Band’s contention that I was without purpose. What he was expressing was his hope, perhaps, but not the truth.
I’d venture to say the same thing about Richard Mayne’s depiction of Andrew MacLean.
Finally, Betrayed has been a reminder for me of the impact Andrew MacLean had on me as a young girl. Watching him take on the hypocrites and hearing him being bad-mouthed was character forming, and I took his response to heart. Andrew was someone with the courage to go against the grain in the pursuit of something he believed was right and moral. Even when it pissed a lot of people off.
Pieces in this section
- Just read: Remembering Andrew MacLean
- Minding The Gaps — Ethics in Non-fiction Writing